Psalm 116 - link to the NRSV text
Psalm 116 is a psalm of thanksgiving, a psalm that would have been used in worship as someone celebrated what they understood as deliverance from difficulties and troubles, what the psalms will often allude to as either “death” or “Sheol” or the “pit.”
Sometimes this could very well be literal; maybe the worshipper really did face the possibility of their physical death. Or it might be something less concrete, more elusive: the death of someone else, a broken friendship or other relationship, economic struggles. Whatever the problem, the worshipper has come through the pit to emerge on the other side, and has understood this to be the work of God, and so the worshipper offers thanksgiving in response.
Walter Brueggemann speaks of the thanksgiving psalms as psalms of “new orientation.” The worshipper had faced the “pit of disorientation,” circumstances and troubles that threatened either the person’s life or at least their emotional and/or spiritual well-being. Yet newness of life has come, and the psalm of thanksgiving offers praise for deliverance already given and a celebration of the inexplicable newness that is being experienced (see Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms , 134).
And so the worshipper comes to the Temple to offer a “sacrifice of thanksgiving,” as verse 17 says. Yet the worshipper does more than just come and make a sacrifice; the psalm instead traces through a story about the salvation and deliverance of this individual from their distress. It opens in praise: “I love the Lord,” the psalmist says, “because he has heard my voice” (v. 1).
The psalm recounts the time of trouble, it retells the story of deliverance; it recalls the distress, the fear of “death” and “Sheol.” The language used is rich with imagery, showering us with the emotional toil that the struggle must have wrought, so much so that the psalmist says in verse 7, “Return to your rest, my soul.” The relief, the peace that has been found is palpable. And by recounting the pit experience, by describing and remembering those dark times, it underscores the work of God in the person’s experience: no-one but the Lord could have done this for me.
The psalm then concludes by repeating the themes of praise and thanksgiving, moving into the new orientation of deliverance and wholeness, emerging on the other side of the pit and stepping into the new life offered. Yet here in Psalm 116, the form of new life, the act of celebration is interesting. The worshipper does not just say, “Yeah God!” then go home. No, the worshipper celebrates what God has done among the community:
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the LORD.
I will pay my vows to the LORD
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the LORD,
in your midst, O Jerusalem (Psalm 116:17-19).
The worshipper stands in the midst of God’s people, stands before them and declares what God has done. Thanksgiving here is not an individual prayer or acknowledgement between God and myself, but it is validated by the rest of God’s people.
Most of the thanksgiving sacrifice, what the Hebrew describes as the zevach todah, would have been given back to the worshipper and eaten in a meal (see Lev 7:12-15). As with many sacrificial offerings, the sacrifice was a part of a celebratory feast that would have included family, the priests and Levites, and others that the Temple cared for. Passover is a meal within this tradition; the lamb offered in the Passover sacrifice would then be eaten by the family.
Worship, then, was rarely a private affair but involved the wider community. And in this case, thanksgiving and celebration is not restricted to our minds and hearts, but is something that is lived out with others. As Brueggemann puts it, “songs of thanksgiving move from intimate, personal experience to comprehensive, communal celebration.” And the form of that celebration is centered on a meal, a meal between three parties: between the worshipper, the community, and God.
As James Mays points out, the "cup of salvation" and "thanksgiving sacrifice" language quickly became associated with Passover in Jewish tradition and with the Eucharist in later Christian tradition (see Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, 371-72). In these two communal celebrations, a meal is shared, the family or community gather at the table, they eat and drink and remember God’s mighty deeds on their behalf.
If your church is celebrating the sacrament this week, this text is a good bridge to interpreting the sacrament in light of God's work in Jesus. In the meal, the communal act of thanksgiving of sharing the bread and the cup, we celebrate our own deliverance through Jesus the Crucified and Risen One: “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (v. 8-9).